The Seven-pronged Sword of Isonokami Shrine in Tenri

Isonokami Shrine and the Seven-branched Sword

One of the oldest, and historically important, shrines in Japan, Isonokami Shrine (石上神社) can be found in the city of Tenri, in Nara Prefecture. It is located in the rich green shadows of its pine tree and bamboo grove surroundings. Numerous small shrines to various deities are also part of the shrine complex. Like many other such shrines in Japan that date back to the Yamato era, it has a peaceful tranquillity and atmosphere. It is also located close to the Yama-no-he pilgrim route (山の辺の道).

Isonokami  2

Shichito  1The shrine is home to one of the earliest historical artefacts, the seven-branched sword (七支刀) that is thought to date to the 3rd or 4th century AD. This inscribed sword was presented to a local king by the rulers of Paekche (Baekje) on the Korean peninsula. Paekche was one of the Three Kingdoms, and it and the other two appear to have had extensive contact with the Yamato or Yamataikoku kingdoms in Japan.

The sword was made in Korea and sent as a gift to one of the rulers in Yamato. It is thought that this was Empress Komyo, since the sword is thought to date to the early fourth century. (However, there are various interpretations of the possible date indicated on the sword, ranging from late-third century to early fifth century. An earlier date would mean that Queen Himiko could also be the recipient.) This would certainly fit with the stories from Japan’s Nihon Shoki (), which has the Empress ruling in Nara. However, the inscription on the sword is more ambiguous. Although the 8th century NIhon Shoki mentions Empress Komyo, contemporary Chinese histories from the 4th/5th century mention Queen Himiko, who is curiously absent from the later Japanese histories.